In AMC’s stylish, surprising premiere, our hero, Rick Grimes, woke up from a coma in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, separated from his family and desperate, clueless as to what was going on. We were confused, too: Was this going to be the grossest supernatural series ever to hit television, some highbrow riff on the walking-dead metaphor, or nothing much at all? This week, we get all sorts of disgusting answers, for better and worse.
Is the show a zombie gore-fest? A human drama about postapocalyptic human survivors? Or both? This week, the zombies win, thanks to a half-digested sewer rat and one spectacularly disgusting, fluid-splattering dissection — and some less-than-human dialogue. It’s hard to think of new ways to make decomposing body parts and fluids seem wretched, but the comic — and, here, the show — overachieve, with disgusting sound effects (thwack-shtuuup-kriikkk!) as Rick and his new pals chop and then smear undead zombie guts all over their bodies. So far, the show hasn’t been overloaded with zombie kills, but when it does get nasty (that ax to the head!), it gets really nasty. If monster-movie nastiness were a competitive sport, Rick and Glenn’s blood-drenched walk would be a triple-lutz-yuck. And they nailed it.
These zombies are seriously gross, but they’re still traditional zombies: slow and predictable, vulnerable alone but dangerous in packs. No matter what, it’s hard to forget all those other George Romero movies, or the basic fact that these zombies are actually dudes in makeup affecting various limps. Since the zombies are just slow-moving, straightforward flesh-eating monsters, the show’s tension will have to come from somewhere else. Darabont knows this, perhaps too well, so even in this episode, the zombie/human conflict takes a backseat to the human-on-human conflict. How does Rick escape that military tank he’s trapped inside? He runs, with the help of his resourceful new pal, Glenn. Easy enough. Luckily enough, through Glenn, Rick finds new friends, who, it turns out, know Rick’s wife. Unlikely enough — and unknown to Rick — she’s shtupping his ex-police-partner Shane in the woods (but only after the World’s Most Obvious Close-Up of her taking off Rick’s wedding ring). That subplot seems promising. And half as ludicrous as the southern saga of T-Dog and Merle.
Did we really just meet a white-trash cokehead redneck with an oversize belt buckle and find out his name is Merle Dixon? (As in Mason-Dixon? Why not just call him “Bull Connor” or, “Klux?”). And did that redneck cartoon call a black man “boy” and the N-word and just blurt out the egregious line, “Your kind and my kind ain’t meant to mix?” Really? They’ve been living together for how long and this is just now coming out? And was this black guy really named T-Dog? And, even though he’s from Atlanta, was T-Dog really wearing a T-shirt that read “Brooklyn”? And, ultimately, how is this gaggle of friends any more interesting than your standard B-movie collection of half-sketched caricatures who get killed off in successive order? Any different? We’ll see.
Worse, in the middle of all this undercooked drama, Rick just can’t stop delivering overheated speeches, like some preachy zombie killer driving a stake through the heart of these scenes, over and over. “Things are different now,” Rick says reasonably, just a minute after getting clobbered in the face by Merle. “There are no [N-words] anymore … only dark meat and light meat … We survive this by pulling together, not apart.” Then the bad-boy redneck calls Rick a “pig” and then “filthy pig.” Supposedly, this small-town cop Rick has been conscious for, say, a few days in a zombie apocalypse and suddenly he’s some post-apocalyptic Obama? (“I know black people who slaughter zombies with axes and I know white people who slaughter zombies with axes …”) What happened to the tight-lipped guy in the first episode who admitted that he never spoke?
Rick blurts out his second speech during the big body-chopping set piece, and it’s so cute it sounds like he’s reading from note cards. “Wayne Dunlap … he had 28 dollars in his pocket when he died and a picture of a pretty girl,” says Rick. “He used to be like us, worrying about bills or the rent or the Super Bowl … If I ever find my family, I’m going to tell them about Wayne …” Sorry, but this just felt absurd — partly because Rick is the new guy telling the more-experienced survivors about life after zombies, and mostly because the dialogue just seemed so awfully stilted.
But this is part of the zombie formula, too: In any middle of some gore-splattered, unabashed B-movie, the leader of the band of survivors will make some clichéd speech like this and the audience will start cackling — because usually, it doesn’t really matter: Noble B-movie monologues have always been little more than preludes to more gore, ironically tolerated so long as they don’t interfere with the splatter. But will it interfere with the splatter now? Since this is a sorta-classy zombie show, are we meant to take this zombies-make-us-value-life-and-understand-how-bad-racism-is speechifying seriously? It seems so.
If this show is going to succeed it’s going to be because the human stuff is strong and surprising enough to make the audience buy the absurdity of people dressed up in movie makeup pretending to be zombies. In this episode, at least, the disgusting zombies win: Their “Argggh” and “Grrrrr” and “Mrrrmmwwwrhrem” are much more convincing than Rick’s speeches. “Pffrgargrgh,” too. Hopefully, next week, the humans will strike back.